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26/09/2007 - How did the MTHR report get so misreported?


On the 12th September the MTHR press-released their first published report on the "Mobile Telecommunications & Health Research" programme that has been running since 2001. The research programme covered a number of important recent papers on mobile telecommunications and health, including the much publicised INTERPHONE work. Sadly, the press-release did a very poor job of explaining what the findings were and gave the national press the view that it basically gave the all clear, with a few minor possibilities to clear up with further research. This incorrect message was reinforced by releasing the report through the Science Media Centre (SMC) who only invite and allow selected national media reporters to attend and so few challenging questions are usually asked. No-one else was allowed to see a copy of the report until after the Press Briefing had finished. The SMC freely admit that they specifically exclude press with strong non main-line views and those with links to groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other campaigning groups.

With regards to cancer and phone exposure, there have been a number of flaws with some of the INTERPHONE epidemiological work, as we have covered previously (November 2006, December 2006, January 2007). It is looking as if the increase in brain cancer risk over the first 10 years is minimal to non-existent, but it is hardly surprisingly for a disease with a typical latency period of 15 to 25 years. They have concluded that after 10 years the situation is not clear, but failed to mention in their press release that some of their own research actually found statistically significant increases for brain tumours with of over 10 years of mobile phone use (in fairness, this is mentioned in the report itself, with the strange caveat that despite mathematical statistical significance the data is "not convincingly significant").

It also summarises that "The MTHR programme also investigated whether mobile phones might affect cells and tissue beyond simply heating them. The results so far show no evidence for this and the committee believes there is no need to support further work in this area." This is also in stark contrast to the more detailed summary of work to be found in the 291 page 2004 REFLEX report (10.8 MB .pdf) which found a number of significant and replicated genetic and cellular effects from microwave radiation. Further to this, there are a number of other peer reviewed papers going back decades finding similar effects referenced in the rest of this article.

It is always difficult when a programme such as this completes, and decides to neglect most of the literature outside of the studies involved in the programme itself when summarising the "current state of understanding". It is hardly news that there have been a large number of studies finding serious health effects from RF radiation exposure, a fact we pointed out on this site 9 years ago! Nevertheless, as the MTHR press release has attempted to make the phone issue sound largely resolved, it only seems fit to attempt to bring attention to the swathes of evidence ignored by the report.

Media coverage

The Times

Nigel Hawkes, health editor of The Times managed to give his readers a good impression that the whole phone issue is a clear non-problem, and comes up with a number of factually incorrect statements:

"As far as we can tell, on the experience gained so far, there is no evidence mobile phones or the masts that broadcast signals can damage anybody's health, and that includes children."

A strange statement considering the evidence from the MTHR programme itself on long term phone use and brain cancer[1][2], Hardell's work on phone use and brain cancer[3][4][5][6], and all of the literature finding "Microwave Syndrome" effects[7][8][9][10][11].

"Experience of widescale use of mobile phones is only about a decade old, however, and children have only started using them in large numbers even more recently. It remains just possible that longer-term studies will reveal some link to cancer, which takes at least a decade to manifest itself."

Aside from the misleading use of language (e.g. the unnecessary use of "remains just possible" when simply "is possible" would have done fine), it is also wrong. Longer-term studies already have revealed a link to cancer, and the increase has been found to be statistically significant (i.e. with only a 5% chance of being a "non-real" increase).[1][2][3][4][5][6]

"The odds of this are very low, because the experiments so far have shown no plausible biological mechanism by which cancer could be triggered. Radio-frequency radiation does not damage DNA, and nor has any other effect been found that could provide such a mechanism."

Again, this is just not true. It is fair to say there are no other accepted biological mechanisms, but there are certainly plausible theorised mechanisms awaiting further confirmation[12][13]. It is also wrong to claim that radio frequency radiation can not damage DNA, as there is already peer-reviewed evidence for this[14][15], and other genetic and cellular effects.[16][17][18][19][20]

"The mobile phone scare has always lacked plausibility. Radio frequency signals have been around since the invention of radio - more than a century - without evidence of ill-effects among those who work closely with them."

It can only have lacked plausibility for those that are not aware of the evidence. Aside from the obvious and well documented points that modern pulsed RF transmissions are considerably different in nature to the continuous wave radio transmissions that have been ubiquitous for so long, there has also been evidence up to 3 decades ago of possible increases in risk of adverse health effects from microwave radiation[21][22][23][24]. More recently there is even some research finding links to cancer with standard AM radio transmitter aerials.[25][26].

"All that remains, like the grin of a vanishing Cheshire Cat, is the tiny hint, not reaching statistical significance, of an increased risk of some brain cancers in long-term users. This must be followed up, clearly, but for the moment there is no evidence that mobile phones pose any risks at all."

This is simply poor reporting. As shown above, there is more than a hint of evidence which does in fact reach statistical significance. Summarising in this way is simply lying to the British public in a national newspaper, on an issue where the public is confused enough already. It is vital that science reporters go the extra mile and put in research before commenting on areas where they are ignorant themselves.

Other media coverage

In fairness, this is the worst of the bunch. For example, aside from the heavily misleading titles, the Belfast Telegraph and Independant articles were more objectively written, and only suffered from taking too much of the MTHR's press release as fact. The Telegraph also covered the story, and is probably the best reflection of the MTHR report in the mainstream media, and the Daily Mail covered the story and gave due attention to the very real possibility of a long term cancer risk, but was sadly the only one to give it prominence in its article -- all external press links below:


[MTHR Press Release]
[Times Coverage]
[Telegraph Coverage]
[Independent Coverage]
[Daily Mail Coverage]


[1] - Schoemaker MJ, Swerdlow AJ, Ahlbom A, Auvinen A, Blaasaas KG, Cardis E, Christensen HC, Feychting M, Hepworth SJ, Johansen C, Klaeboe L, Lönn S, McKinney PA, Muir K, Raitanen J, Salminen T, Thomsen J, Tynes T (October 2005) "Mobile phone use and risk of acoustic neuroma: results of the Interphone case-control study in five North European countries". Br J Cancer. 93(7):842-8 - [View Abstract]

[2] - Lahkola A, Auvinen A, Raitanen J, Schoemaker MJ, Christensen HC, Feychting M, Johansen C, Klaeboe L, Lönn S, Swerdlow AJ, Tynes T, Salminen T (April 2007) "Mobile phone use and risk of glioma in 5 North European countries". Int J Cancer. 120(8):1769-75 - [View Abstract]

[3] - Hardell L, Carlberg M, Söderqvist F, Mild KH, Morgan LL (September 2007) "Long-term use of cellular phones and brain tumours: increased risk associated with use for > or =10 years". Occup Environ Med. 64(9):626-32 - [View Abstract]

[4] - Hardell L, Mild KH, Carlberg M, Söderqvist F (October 2006) "Tumour risk associated with use of cellular telephones or cordless desktop telephones". World J Surg Oncol. 4:74 - [View Abstract]

[5] - Hardell L, Carlberg M, Mild KH (February 2006) "Pooled analysis of two case-control studies on the use of cellular and cordless telephones and the risk of benign brain tumours diagnosed during 1997-2003". Int J Oncol. 28(2):509-18 - [View Abstract]

[6] - Hardell L, Carlberg M, Mild KH (September 2006) "Pooled analysis of two case-control studies on use of cellular and cordless telephones and the risk for malignant brain tumours diagnosed in 1997-2003". Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 79(8):630-9 - [View Abstract]

[7] - Al-Khlaiwi T, Meo SA (June 2004) "Association of mobile phone radiation with fatigue, headache, dizziness, tension and sleep disturbance in Saudi population". Saudi Med J. 25(6):732-6 - [View Abstract]

[8] - Abdel-Rassoul G, El-Fateh OA, Salem MA, Michael A, Farahat F, El-Batanouny M, Salem E (March 2007) "Neurobehavioral effects among inhabitants around mobile phone base stations". Neurotoxicology. 28(2):434-40 - [View Abstract]

[9] - Santini R, Santini P, Danze JM, Le Ruz P, Seigne M (July 2002) "Investigation on the health of people living near mobile telephone relay stations: I/Incidence according to distance and sex". Pathol Biol (Paris). 50(6):369-73 - [View Abstract]

[10] - Santini R, Santini P, Danze JM, Le Ruz P, Seigne M (September 2003) "Symptoms experienced by people in vicinity of base stations: II/ Incidences of age, duration of exposure, location of subjects in relation to the antennas and other electromagnetic factors". Pathol Biol (Paris). 51(7):412-5 - [View Abstract]

[11] - Oberfeld Gerd, Navarro A. Enrique, Portoles Manuel, Maestu Ceferino, Gomez-Perretta Claudio (August 2004) "The Microwave Syndrome - Further aspects of a Spanish Study". Conference Proceedings - [View Summary and Download Report]

[12] - Irmak MK, Fadillioglu E, Gülec M, Erdogan H, Yagmurca M, Akyol O (December 2002) "Effects of electromagnetic radiation from a cellular telephone on the oxidant and antioxidant levels in rabbits". Cell Biochem Funct. 20(4):279-83 - [View Abstract]

[13] - Leszczynski D, Joenväärä S, Reivinen J, Kuokka R (May 2002) "Non-thermal activation of the hsp27/p38MAPK stress pathway by mobile phone radiation in human endothelial cells: molecular mechanism for cancer- and blood-brain barrier-related effects". Differentiation. 70(2-3):120-9 - [View Abstract]

[14] - Lai H, Singh NP (1995) "Acute low-intensity microwave exposure increases DNA single-strand breaks in rat brain cells". Bioelectromagnetics. 16(3):207-10 - [View Abstract]

[15] - Lai H, Singh NP (April 1996) "Single- and double-strand DNA breaks in rat brain cells after acute exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation". Int J Radiat Biol. 69(4):513-21 - [View Abstract]

[16] - Nylund R, Leszczynski D (May 2004) "Proteomics analysis of human endothelial cell line EA.hy926 after exposure to GSM 900 radiation". Proteomics. 2004 4(5):1359-65 - [View Abstract]

[17] - Nylund R, Leszczynski D (September 2006) "Mobile phone radiation causes changes in gene and protein expression in human endothelial cell lines and the response seems to be genome- and proteome-dependent". Proteomics. 6(17):4769-80 - [View Abstract]

[18] - Yurekli AI, Ozkan M, Kalkan T, Saybasili H, Tuncel H, Atukeren P, Gumustas K, Seker S (2006) "GSM base station electromagnetic radiation and oxidative stress in rats". Electromagn Biol Med. 2006;25(3):177-88. - [View Abstract]

[19] - Remondini D, Nylund R, Reivinen J, Poulletier de Gannes F, Veyret B, Lagroye I, Haro E, Trillo MA, Capri M, Franceschi C, Schlatterer K, Gminski R, Fitzner R, Tauber R, Schuderer J, Kuster N, Leszczynski D, Bersani F, Maercker C (September 2006) "Gene expression changes in human cells after exposure to mobile phone microwaves". Proteomics. 6(17):4745-54 - [View Abstract]

[20] - Sarimov R, Malmgren LOG, Markova E, Persson BRR, Belyaev IY (2004) "Nonthermal GSM Microwaves Affect Chromatin Conformation in Human Lymphocytes Similar to Heat Shock". IEEE Trans Plasma Sci 32:1600-1608 - [View Abstract]

[21] - Silverman C (April 1973) "Nervous and behavioral effects of microwave radiation in humans". Am J Epidemiol. 97(4):219-24 - [View Reference]

[22] - Adey WR, Bawin SM, Lawrence AF (1982) "Effects of weak amplitude-modulated microwave fields on calcium efflux from awake cat cerebral cortex". Bioelectromagnetics. 3(3):295-307 - [View Reference]

[23] - Milham S Jr (January 1988) "Increased mortality in amateur radio operators due to lymphatic and hematopoietic malignancies". Am J Epidemiol. 127(1):50-4 - [View Reference]

[24] - Szmigielski S (February 1996) "Cancer morbidity in subjects occupationally exposed to high frequency (radiofrequency and microwave) electromagnetic radiation". Sci Total Environ. 180(1):9-17 - [View Abstract]

[25] - Park SK, Ha M, Im HJ (August 2004) "Ecological study on residences in the vicinity of AM radio broadcasting towers and cancer death: preliminary observations in Korea". Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 77(6):387-94 - [View Abstract]

[26] - Ha M, Im H, Lee M, Kim HJ, Kim BC, Gimm YM, Pack JK (August 2007) "Radio-frequency radiation exposure from AM radio transmitters and childhood leukemia and brain cancer". Am J Epidemiol. 166(3):270-9 - [View Abstract]

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